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A state divided: Uranium mining in Virginia?

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Most uranium mining in the U.S. has occurred in the arid West. Virginia is prone to tropical tempests — some of historic proportions — and opponents fear a catastrophic storm could create an environmental nightmare if the mining and processing of the ore was allowed. Drenching rains and winds could carry radioactive waste to local waters that are used for drinking supplies in the state's largest city, Virginia Beach, and others in southeastern Virginia, they argue.

"We're looking at an extraordinary high-stakes gamble and it's not a gamble the state of Virginia should take," said Cale Jaffe, a leading voice against mining and director of the Charlottesville office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

It's not the mining that stirs the most concern, but the so-called milling — the separation of the ore from hard rock.

As rock and uranium are mined, they are crushed and then leached through a chemical process to extract the ore. Besides yellowcake, the fuel for nuclear power plants, the process creates huge amounts of waste called tailings. The tailings must be stored for up to 1,000 years. Virginia Uranium, the company seeking the right to mine, has committed to storing the waste in below-ground containment cells that it says would minimize the risk of the radioactive waste being released to local wells or public drinking sources.

Opponents have not been appeased.

They include the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, the state's largest farm lobby and traditionally pro-business; the NAACP; church groups; municipal organizations; water-protection groups; and every environmental organization of note in the state.

Delegate Donald Merricks, a Republican whose district includes Pittsylvania County, says the creation of mining jobs got his interest but not his support.

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